Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Waterloo Teeth: A Ghoulish Episode in Dental History

For many people a battle and its aftermath, represents just another means to make money -- merely another business opportunity. Opportunists who robbed the slain soldiers after the Battle of Waterloo were no different. These scavengers, however, were a bit unusual from the likes that came before them -- they robbed the dead not only for money and gold, but also took their teeth.

This was the time when dentistry had came fully into its own in Europe and North America. Naturally the first false teeth were also developed during this time. However like anything else, these first sets of false dentures were not too good and had many "teething" problems. Dentists found it difficult to fix the dentures permanently. The bigger problem was in the area of developing false teeth. Dentists experimented with bone and ivory, but couldn't find anything better than actual teeth. Human teeth were hence much in demand especially by the wealthy to replace their own rotten teeth. But where would one find enough of these teeth? Remember that the replacement teeth had to be in "good health."

Graverobbers and dishonest workers in mortuaries or graveyards, obtained many teeth illegally -- but these were often already rotten. The teeth of executed "healthy" criminals fetched a high price but they could be obtained only with the "agreement" of an understanding judge.

When the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, there was a sudden spurt in the availability of teeth. But in spite of this abundance, teeth which were obtained from battlefields were the most highly prized of all. Why?
Of the 50,000 men who fell at the Battle of Waterloo, most were young and healthy and their teeth were of a generally good standard, much better than the teeth employed in the majority of dentures. Having been plundered from the battlefield, most of these teeth made their way back to Britain, the country best placed to afford the new top-quality dentures which would incorporate them. These then became known as 'Waterloo Teeth' and were often worn with a great deal of pride, a 'must-have' accessory for fashion-conscious yet toothless members of the more affluent classes of the time.
Read the H2G2 entry: Waterloo Teeth: A History of Dentures, for more on this gruesome but fascinating history of false teeth.

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